Essays on the History of Ethics

Essays on the History of Ethics

Essays on the History of Ethics

Essays on the History of Ethics

Synopsis

In Essays on the History of Ethics Michael Slote collects his essays that deal with aspects of both ancient and modern ethical thought and seek to point out conceptual/normative comparisons and contrasts among different views. Arranged in chronological order of the philosopher under discussion, the relationship between ancient ethical theory and modern moral philosophy is a major theme of several of the papers and, in particular, Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and/or utilitarianism feature centrally in (most of) the discussions. One essay seeks to show that there are three main ways to conceive the relationship between human well-being and virtue: one is dualistic a la Kant (they are disparate notions); one is the sort of reductionism familiar from the history of utilitarianism; and one, not previously named by philosophers, is implicit in the approach the Stoics, Plato, and Aristotle take (in their different ways) to the topic of virtue and well-being. Slote names this third approach "elevationism" and argue that it is more promising than either reductionism or dualism. Two of the essays are narrowly focused on Hume's ethics, and one seeks to show that even Kant's opponents have reason to accept a number of important and original Kantian ideas. Finally, the two last essays in the volume talk about ethical thought during the last half of the twentieth century and the first few years of the twenty-first, arguing that the care ethics of Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings has a distinctive and important contribution to make to ongoing ethical theorizing--and to our understanding of the history of ethics as well.

Excerpt

I am not a scholar of the history of philosophy or of the history of ethics; and anyone who reads the essays that follow will soon become aware of that fact if they aren’t already aware of it from reading things I have previously written. Nonetheless, I think there is a significant place for a book like this one that seeks to use ideas from or interpretations of the history of ethics to illuminate present-day issues. Present-day ethics needs its history more than philosophy of mind, epistemology, and philosophy of language seem to need their histories, though I am not sure I have anything very enlightening to say about why that seems to be so.

But if I may approach matters from the other end, I think it is also true that historians of ethics and of philosophy more generally look to present-day developments to give them clues for interpreting the past. (At least this is true of the kind of historians who are trained in and come out of analytic philosophy departments.) The minds and the creativity of great historical figures are often so great that subsequent and even much, much later generations may see what those figures were moving toward or developing only after their inchoate or tentative ideas are rediscovered in possibly clearer and more articulate form. Aristotle or Hume, for example, may simply be greater than we at any given time can understand them to be. (Artur Schnabel once said that Schubert’s piano music is better than it can be played.) And this gives historians a chance and a right, among other things, to investigate the history of philosophy through the magnifying lens of contemporary philosophizing. Historians who know enough about the present can see better than others how certain important historical figures adumbrate current ideas. So even a philosopher who doesn’t know the past as well as others may be able to use current ideas to cast light on that past, and to do so in a way that real historians of ethics could find interesting. And, once again reversing direction, what that philosopher finds, the way he or she interprets the past, may have useful bearing on how we (should) think about current issues—even on how we should formulate them or whether we should reformulate them.

However, in speaking, as I just have, of what the philosopher—and so perhaps this philosopher—finds, I don’t mean to be claiming that the interpretations I shall be offering are always going to be what the best present historical scholarship would agree upon (and, of course, scholars will invariably . . .

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